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Ansu Fati: A trajectory that only points upwards

Adithya Eshwarla

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Image via Imago

The moment the world saw a 16-year-old prodigy make his professional debut for Barcelona’s first team, it knew it was in for something big. And over the past year, we have seen wonder from this young talent. Ansu Fati has been relentless, breaking record after record and setting the bar higher with every passing game.

One vividly recalls his debut against Real Betis, where he made an instant impression after coming on late in the second half. In the few minutes he was provided, he showed remarkable composure and linkup play. However, what separated him from the other was his fearlessness and intent. To say he could have scored twice in the meagre minutes he received would be an understatement.

The same class and intent were once again visible when the 16-year-old made his full debut for Barcelona. He scored 6 minutes into his full La Liga debut and 2 minutes into his home League debut. There has been no stopping him since, as he became the youngest goal-scorer in the Champions League. To add to his list of marvels, he scored on his National debut for Spain against Ukraine, a goal that oozed class all over.

Ansu Fati Barcelona

Ansu Fati in action against Sevilla in La Liga matchday 3 | Image via Imago

Once again this season, the youngster has had a fiery start scoring 3 times in the first 3 games! The youngster had a night to remember against Villareal as he scored twice and won a penalty. Only sponsorship problems prevented him from taking home the man of the match award. Once again, he opened the scoring for the Catalans in Galicia, at a stadium where the Blaugrana have historically struggled.

With so much achieved at such a young age, Fati has naturally become the talking point across not just Spain but the whole world. Being named the player of the month for September has certainly further upped his stocks. With a new market valuation of 80M, he is now the third-highest valued player in the Spanish league, only after Jan Oblak and Lionel Messi.

Barcelona fans do have a history with overhyped La Masia stars who have gone on to fade away. Bojan Krkic is a name that distinctly stands out. One cannot predict the future but what one can do is talk of potential. Something that Fati has in abundance. If the youngster can stay away from the limelight and the stardom for a few more years, he can go on to become a bonafide star. Only a few years of refinement, hard-work, and moulding stand between him and success. Maintaining it too, however, requires immense hard work, but getting there is the more difficult milestone.

The La Masia star has shown to possess the raw materials that one needs to succeed. At his age, his pace is a deadly weapon that helps him tear down defences. Training in La Masia has shown its effect, with his passing almost always being on point, and vertical. Time after time, he has baffled the topmost defenders of the League with his cheeky dribbling. His ruthless finishing is a cherry on the top, as it rounds him off as a lethal striker.

Ansu Fati Barcelona

Ansu Fati during the warm-up of the La Liga game against Villareal | Image by David Ramirez via Imago

For a young prospect who possesses all these aspects to their game, the sky is the limit. With the right guidance and mentorship, he can truly touch great heights. As it stands, he has displaced Ousmane Dembele in the pecking order and has earned a starting spot under Ronald Koeman. Such an abundance of playing time at the highest level can only be music to his ears. Receiving promotion to the first team at such a young age attests to his ability.

However, there are domains from which he must refrain from involving. And one of them is contractual matters. Having recently signed with Jorge Mendes, there have been large clouds over his contractual status and future. While signing with such an established agent is good for the player, the age does not seem right. The same move a few years down the line might have been a much better choice because now it adds unnecessary pressure on the young lad.

At the same time, he needs to manage his off the field life responsibly and not get carried away by stardom. Staying focussed on training and his goals is surely the right path. Going astray may take him down a road laden with barren lands.

It is great to see the Board and Manager supporting the growth of a young gem. The trajectory only points upwards. The raw materials need to be processed, and the product is close to being finished. In a game between discipline and age, which one will come out on top? One hopes it is the former, because such a promising talent may not be seen for a long time to come.

I’ve watched football for years, but never again felt that special tug that I experienced when I watched Barcelona play for the first time. What started off as just a little inquisitiveness on Quora, ultimately developed into a magnificent passion for writing articles. The best part: You never stop learning in football; and it never ceases to amaze you.

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Barcelona and the Georginio Wijnaldum affair

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo by JOHN THYS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Georginio “Gini” Wijnaldum has been at the heart of Liverpool’s robust, hard-working midfield for the past five seasons. He’s a player Culés know all too well, as he scored two goals in two minutes to help lift Liverpool past Barcelona in the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals.

Wijnaldum is an impending free agent this summer and has been linked with Barcelona ever since Ronald Koeman took over in the fall. Koeman coached him with the Dutch national team and has a real affinity for the player, even coming out in interviews claiming he was on his “transfer list”. 

Barça are in a tough situation as they need to revamp their squad but lack the proper funds to do so. Wijnaldum could potentially be signed for free in the summer, but should Barça pursue him?

Player Profile

Wijnaldum rose through the ranks of the Feyenoord youth system before making his senior club debut at 16 years-old in 2007. In fact, he is the youngest debutant in the Dutch club’s history. He made 135 appearances with his boyhood club and won the Dutch Cup in 2008. Wijnaldum then had spells with PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle United before signing with Liverpool in 2016. 

With Liverpool, Wijnaldum has won practically every trophy possible, from the Champions League in 2019 to the Premier League in 2020.  He has made over 212 appearances for The Reds and is a staple in their midfield. Under manager Jürgen Klopp, he’s made a name for himself as a midfield engine, one whose high energy and pressing gives the team defensive stability as well as a quick outlet for transitional play.

Playing alongside Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Naby Keita in a midfield three, his work rate allows Liverpool to dominate opposing teams. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Against Barcelona in 2019, he played as a centre forward, and he’s even played matches at centre back.   

Wijnaldum’s heat-map this season for Liverpool in the Premier League, per Sofascore.

The 30-year old is capable of fulfilling various roles in the middle of the park. In the early stages of his career with Feyenoord and PSV, he played as an advanced midfielder, a number ten, and even on both wings. To showcase his attacking prowess, he had seasons of 14, 15, and 16 goal hauls in 2010/11, 2012/13, and 2014/15 respectively. His roles during his one-season stint with Newcastle were varied, and he was impressively their leading goalscorer (11) in the Premier League that season (2015/16). 

Wijnaldum is also a key squad member for the Dutch National team. He made his debut in September of 2011 and has made 70 appearances ever since. He often plays as an advanced midfielder and has scored 21 goals for the Oranje. Looking at the heap map below, it’s clear to see the different roles he fulfills for his club side and national team.

Wijnaldum’s heatmap for the Dutch National Team in Euro Qualifiers, per sofascore.com

Wijnaldum is an extremely hard-worker on the pitch. Defensively, he’s nearly impossible to shake off with his physicality and positioning. Offensively, he’s press-resistant, efficient with his passing and has a knack for scoring goals. Once again, he’s not asked to do much on the creative-end for Liverpool, but his time in the Netherlands and with the national team proves he’s more than capable of fulfilling those duties.

Last season, he averaged 45.9 passes per game with a completion rate of 90.4%, 9.10 made passes while under pressure from opponents, and 1.69 tackles plus interceptions per game. This season, he is one of the squad leaders for Liverpool in terms of most passes made while under pressure (7.51). In the Premier League this season, he is winning 2.4 of his ground duels per game. 

Wijnaldum and De Jong know each other a little too well from their time with the Dutch National team. (Photo via Imago)

His averages of only 0.08 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes and 0.15 goal contributions per game last season may indicate a lack of creativity, but that’s only due to his positioning and tactical instructions from Klopp. For the Dutch National team, in which he plays in a more advanced position, he has tallied a staggering 11 goals and four assists in 17 appearances since 2019. That’s a rate of 0.88 goal contributions per game, albeit at a smaller sample size. 

Where would he fit in at Barça?

Evidently, Wijnaldum is one of the most versatile players in the world. He does a little bit of everything and as such, could potentially fill a variety of roles for Barça. 

In Koeman’s 4-2-3-1, Wijnaldum can play in the double pivot or even the number ten role. There, Winjaldum’s high energy and defensive work rate could cover a more attack-minded player, like Frenkie De Jong. Koeman has recently reverted to Barça’s typical 4-3-3, however, the 2014-2015 Netherlands Footballer of the Year can play in any of the three midfield positions. He’s had some experience as a number 6, playing in front of the defence and anchoring the midfield, but his box-to-box capabilities would best serve the team if he played as an “interior”, one of the two central midfielders. 

Gini does not shy away from a robust tackle. (Photo by Phil Noble – Pool/Getty Images)

Barça fans have often clamoured for a workhorse in the midfield, someone who will do the team’s dirty work night in and night out. This player’s defensive work rate would counterbalance the more attack-oriented and free-roaming midfielders. Arturo Vidal filled this role for a season or two and Ivan Rakitic to a different degree before him. Wijnaldum could play this part admirably for the Blaugrana, just as he currently does for Liverpool. 

It’s easy to see why Koeman wants to sign him. The question is, should Barcelona move ahead with it?

Verdict

Although there are many arguments in favour of signing Wijnaldum, particularly regarding his versatility and box-to-box acumen, there are equally as many against it. 

To start, he is already 30-years old and would be 31 by the start of next season. While he is still performing at a high level and not showing signs of slowing down, signing him would put the club in an awkward place. His salary demands are reportedly why he wants to leave Liverpool, and the Catalans should be hesitant before signing him to a potentially long-term, high salary deal. He could easily end up in Arturo Vidal’s situation, where the club signed him at 31-years old and after a season and a half, decided to offload him for free.  

Furthermore, because Barcelona are in dire straits financially, they need to spend what little money they have wisely. Squad building should be focused on long-term replacements for key positions such as left-back, centre forward, and defensive mid. Wijnaldum would be a complimentary piece, and while he could be a solid temporary fix, Barça require core pieces. 

Barcelona know about Wijnaldum’s level all too well, but this is not the right time to sign him. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

His addition would also crowd the Blaugrana’s jam-packed midfield, not to mention take minutes away from their various “gems.” To fill the three centre-mid positions, Barcelona have Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Riqui Puig, Miralem Pjanić, the up-and-coming Ilaix Moriba (set to make his debut this Friday in the Spanish Cup), and even Sergi Roberto or Philippe Coutinho once they return from injury. 

As mentioned, some fans would want him because of his work rate and tireless effort on the defensive end, but the squad’s defensive issues won’t disappear because of one hard-working player. 

Conclusion

In years past, a signing like Wijnaldum would make perfect sense. He would have been younger and could fill a long-term need as a versatile squad piece, but Barcelona are now in a different place both on and off-the-pitch. It can be frustrating for culés to hear the age-old arguments about how their club is struggling financially. Still, the reality is that Barça must now be extremely diligent and effective with their signings, focusing instead on finding long-term replacements in key positions. Wijaldum could be a solid addition, but he is not a player the club absolutely needs.

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